Allen Lane’s decision to abandon cover art when he launched Penguin Books in July 1935, was a revolutionary move that was followed by almost all of his competitors. Previously lurid cover designs gave way to much more restrained design. So what is happening just two years later, when Lane seems to abandon all restraint with the Penguin Specials series?
It is not yet the return of multi-coloured cover art. It would be many more years before Lane could reconcile himself to such a step. But the screaming headlines, the long prose blurbs and the occasional cartoons and maps on the covers of the Penguin Specials are a long way away from the simple tripartite model of the main Penguin series.
The series of topical political tracts on world affairs, launched in late 1937 was a huge success. The turbulent state of European politics had created an appetite for information on international affairs that Lane was happy to satisfy. The initial print run of 50,000 for the first volume sold out within four days and had to be almost immediately reprinted. Other books sold in their hundreds of thousands and their success gave Penguin a platform for later domination. When paper rationing was introduced later in the war, the allocations were based on paper use in these pre-war years and Penguin were using paper in vast quantities.
But why the lack of restraint in design? Penguin seem to have decided that in the political situation of the time, with the threat of war looming, restraint was simply not appropriate. Every new book in the series, and every new topic, was a matter of screaming urgency and the covers should reflect this.
And the books were after all, despite their lack of restraint, still recognisably Penguins. Enough of the basic Penguin design was retained for that to be clear. They carried the Penguin brand and the values associated with it – a certain vague notion of seriousness, quality and intellectual aspiration. Despite the shoutiness of the covers, these were not to be seen as populist or downmarket. The basic colour was still orange, the colour most associated with Penguin (or Pelican blue for those volumes branded as Pelican specials), the design was still based on horizontal bands, the Penguin logo was still in much the same place at the bottom of the front cover, and the price of course was still 6d.
The style of cover was not really new. The covers remind me particularly of the dustwrapper designs on many hardback books from Gollancz in the 1930s, and no doubt other publishers too. But I don’t think they were normal on paperbacks at this time, and if anybody was going to introduce them, the last person you’d have in mind would be Allen Lane. For the second time in three years, he was revolutionising paperback cover design.
But in the end this one wasn’t really a revolution. Other companies didn’t copy it, although Hutchinson moved some way in the same direction for a while. Perhaps even more significantly, Penguin themselves didn’t persist for too long with the policy. When war was declared in September 1939, the series had reached almost 40 titles, but gradually screaming headlines started to give way to the more sober realities of war. By 1942, as the series passed 100 volumes, a new design was emerging that had no room for long quotations or cartoons and was much more like the classic Penguin design. This looks to me to be a recognition that the technique of shouting can be very effective in the short term, particularly if unexpected, but almost inevitably loses its effectiveness and shows diminishing returns if persisted with. Restraint was back in fashion.
A Penguin special from 1943
I’ve written before about how Penguin transformed the UK paperback market, particularly by making illustrated covers look both old-fashioned and down market. It was rather odd really. Before 1935 illustrated covers had dominated the paperback market and with hindsight we know that illustrated covers were to dominate in future as well. But for more than a decade after the launch of Penguin in 1935, no paperback publisher who wanted their books to be taken at all seriously, could use much in the way of cover art.
The inevitable fightback is probably most associated with Pan Books, which became known for its bright cover illustrations and later for its paperback editions of James Bond books. It eventually became a serious rival to Penguin and pushed them further and further to using illustrated covers themselves. But that was quite a long way down the line when the business was set up in 1944 by Alan Bott, a former World War I fighter pilot, who had been one of the founders of the Book Society. It’s not clear that he had any intention either of rivalling Penguin, or of reintroducing cover art to paperbacks when his first books appeared. The first two, in 1945, were a paperback collection of ‘Tales of the Supernatural’ and a small hardback edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Two more paperbacks followed in 1946, but other than a small logo, they had no cover art and were unnumbered.
The first two Pan Books
… and the next two
By early 1947 it was still not clear where the business was going. Two more hardback books appeared, one of them an almost identical copy of a book that Alan Bott’s earlier venture, The Book Society had published only months before. There seemed to be no coherence at all to the publishing programme, and certainly no indication of what the business was to become. Part of that may have been because of the continuing effects of paper rationing after the war. It was difficult for any new publisher to obtain access to paper in large quantities, and for Pan Books the problem was solved only when they reached agreement for books to be printed in France.
Book Society edition 1946 (left) and Pan books edition 1947 (right)
That arrangement was in place in early 1947 and it was not long before the first books in the numbered series of paperbacks appeared and the style that was to be associated with them, started to emerge. Number 1 in the series was a selection of stories by Rudyard Kipling, and number 2 ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton. These were fairly safe choices, but the radical element was the use of illustration on the cover. Nothing too colourful of course – fairly simple and stylised drawings, but still a significant break from what had been the orthodoxy of the previous 12 years.
Just as Penguin has its own creation myth involving Allen Lane on a railway station, Pan Books has the story of how books were sailed down the River Seine from Paris each week on an old Royal Navy Motor Launch, and then up the Thames to its warehouse in London. A lot of books must have made that journey, because by the end of 1947 the series had reached about 25 books and seemed well established, with the use of cover illustration a definite part of its style. By mid 1950 the series was well past 100 and illustrations were in full colour, were taking up more of the front cover and were becoming more naturalistic. Around the same time, printing switched back to the UK and the motor launch could be put into retirement.
Pan covers from 1950 and from 1960
Within another 5 or 6 years illustrations would take over the entire cover, and by that time the battle for the future of cover art had been won. Penguin would remain an important player in the market and would eventually adopt illustrated covers, but it would no longer be setting the terms on which all the other companies had to compete.
At first glance this looks just like one of the US Armed Services Editions (ASEs) that were issued in their millions during the Second World War. It has the distinctive oblong shape, the brightly coloured panels on the front cover, and most strikingly of all, the slanting image of the original book. Even the circle on the bottom left of the cover for the words ‘Armed Services Edition’ is there. Except that it’s none of these things. It’s not an Armed Services Edition, it’s not even American, that’s not an image of the original book, and the circle is used for a portrait of the author. This is just a shameless borrowing of the design of the ASEs.
A Bear Pocket Book … and a genuine Armed Services Edition
The deception must be intentional, although it’s hard to see the commercial purpose, since the Armed Services Editions were not for sale. Buyers could hardly buy a Bear Pocket Book, mistakenly thinking they were buying an ASE. But presumably the ASEs were so familiar, even in Britain, that there was thought to be some commercial advantage in aping them.
Apart from the familiar cover design, it’s a very unattractive book, cramming 100,000 words into just 160 small pages. The writing is tiny – far smaller than the ASEs, which were often surprisingly bulky. Even the marketing blurb on the front cover is almost illegible. Perhaps the biggest surprise though is the price. Two shillings was a whopping price for a paperback at the time. Before the war, Penguins and most paperbacks had sold for 6d, a quarter of this price. The war had pushed up costs, so that by 1946 the standard price for a paperback was more like a shilling, but quite why anyone would pay two shillings for what looks like a very inferior product, is a mystery.
The series didn’t last long. It seems to have run to nine books between June 1946 and June 1947, including the immortal ‘The terror from Timorkal’ by Festus Pragnell.